Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Loic Le Meur’s Ten Rules For Startup Success

Share ideas to the maximum

By Chris Nuttall in San Francisco

Published: December 4 2007 20:52 | Last updated: December 4 2007 20:52

Loïc Le Meur has come up with 10 rules for anyone wanting to be successful in business, after he learned to break all of the accepted ones himself.

France’s best-known blogger has at times alienated his audience, offended his countrymen and given away company secrets in pursuit of his ambition to lead a global company.

He thinks he may finally achieve that with his move from Paris to San Francisco this summer, where, his new start-up, is being built as much by its users as his small staff. Seesmic allows bloggers easily to commit their thoughts to video and begin conversations with one another on topics that the website will arrange into different channels.

It is the fifth business set up by the 35-year-old since he graduated from HEC business school in France 11 years ago. As well as launching companies, the extrovert entrepreneur has also been a business angel, blogged for the World Economic Forum, founded an internet conference and become an adviser to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

But despite his success on the Continent, his move to the US is based on the belief that Silicon Valley is the destination for entrepreneurs wanting to launch an internet company with worldwide influence.

His first company was B2L, a web design agency that won clients such as Chanel and Peugeot in the late 1990s before he sold it to the BBDO advertising agency in 1999. Next came Rapid Site, a web hosting company he launched in 1997 that offered to host corporate sites at a tenth of the price being charged by France Telecom.

This is where he learnt what he regards as one of his most important entrepreneurial lessons. In 1999 France Telecom ran an advertisement for its web-hosting service picturing a Scottish castle – uncannily reminiscent of an earlier Rapid ad showing a Spanish castle. The pricing plan in the France Telecom ad was also virtually identical to Rapid’s.

“My first instinct was to sue them. The other option was to get them to lunch,” he says. He chose the latter course and, 15 days later, Rapid was part of France Telecom.

“I tell business school students you should respect your competitors. I always meet them, and if I’d criticised France Telecom, I would never have sold them the company.”

In 2004 he founded Ublog, one of Europe’s first blog-hosting companies. In less than a year he had linked up with Six Apart, a leading US service, becoming its European head until he quit in January this year.

“I was still not global. I was feeling I should not be a European branch, so I decided to move to San Francisco. In Europe, it’s much more difficult to have a global goal and a global vision because you struggle at first in your own market.”

He attributes this to the fact that the region has 22 languages and geography that complicates deal-making. In contrast, San Francisco is at the epicentre of deals, he says.

“The way you do partnerships here, everyone’s a block away or 20 minutes away in Palo Alto. If I need to set up a partnership with [micro-blogging service] Twitter, I call them, we have coffee, and two hours later the deal is done. If I were in France, there’s a nine-hour time difference and it’s like you don’t matter.”

In an effort to create such an ecosystem in Europe, in 2003 he launched the LeWeb conference, a gathering of about 50 bloggers, entrepreneurs and business angels. This year’s conference, to be held in Paris next week, will host 1,300 people from 40 countries.

He upset French sensibilities by insisting the conference is held in English, with no French translation. “If you don’t speak English, the internet’s official language, then this conference is not for you,” he says.

But he managed to create a blogging firestorm in 2006 when he allowed one person to break the language rule. Nicolas Sarkozy, now French president, came to the conference, gave a 15-minute speech in French and did not take questions. “This was my mistake. I acted too much on my own and rule number one of social software is that you involve other people,” says Mr Le Meur.

His engagement in politics had been growing for some time as he became frustrated at the lack of help for entrepreneurs in France. He began to meet politicians and persuaded Mr Sarkozy to record a podcast. “I broke all the [journalistic] rules – I said ‘tu’ to him, not [the more formal] ‘vous’, I gave him the gift of an iPod to show him what podcasting was. People said: ‘How can you do this?’”

Mr Sarkozy’s policies for making employment rules more flexible led Mr Le Meur to say on his blog that he would vote for him to become president. For the bloggers, this was another faux pas, but it prompted an invitation from Mr Sarkozy to join his campaign team. Mr Le Meur helped with his internet campaign, marshalling bloggers to back him and building Sarkozy Island in the virtual world of Second Life.

“The lesson on politics is that you must get involved, [politicians] rule our world and we need to talk to them and have them understand the way we talk is different,” he says.

Mr Le Meur began his blog at four years ago. He has also extended it into video with Loï, where his professionally produced pieces reveal a consummate performer able to deliver his messages with humour.

Mr Le Meur is uploading a day-by-day video diary of Seesmic’s development, inviting viewers to contribute ideas, vote on staff hiring decisions, choose a logo for the company or even come and work for it. Early users of Seesmic, still in its testing phase, are asked to vote on what new features should be included.

He has won the support of influential bloggers such as Michael Arrington of Techcrunch and Robert Scoble by including them at an early stage. “I have applied my own rules here, which are share ideas to the maximum possible and then involve the actors like Arrington and Scoble in the conversation.

“I love the spirit here. By default, it is ‘How can I help?’ and you have the trust of a person. In Europe, by default, you have zero trust. That is the big difference.”

Loïc Le Meur has come up with 10 rules for success in business while writing his entrepreneurship blog:

● Don’t wait for a revolutionary idea. It will never happen. Just focus on a simple, exciting, empty space and execute as fast as possible

● Share your idea. The more you share, the more you get advice and the more you learn. Meet and talk to your competitors.

● Build a community. Use blogging and social software to make sure people hear about you.

● Listen to your community. Answer questions and build your product with their feedback.

● Gather a great team. Select those with very different skills from you. Look for people who are better than you.

● Be the first to recognise a problem. Everyone makes mistakes. Address the issue in public, learn about and correct it.

● Don’t spend time on market research. Launch test versions as early as possible. Keep improving the product in the open.

● Don’t obsess over spreadsheet business plans. They are not going to turn out as you predict, in any case.

● Don’t plan a big marketing effort. It’s much more important and powerful that your community loves the product.

● Don’t focus on getting rich. Focus on your users. Money is a consequence of success, not a goal.